Out & About: Survey says mental health is top of mind for region’s health needs

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/20/2022 11:20:28 AM
Modified: 2/20/2022 11:20:08 AM

When the results of the 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment came pouring in, one topic was a top concern across all age groups: mental health services.

It beat out the cost of health care and health insurance, as well as substance misuse and prevention.

Alice Ely, executive director of the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley, wasn’t surprised.

“Not at all,” she said.

In the most recent previous survey, in 2019, mental health was second on the list behind health care costs.

“It means that it’s been top of mind and through the course of the pandemic it’s been more challenging for everyone to get what they need,” Ely said.

The Community Health Needs Assessment is put together every three years by area hospitals and health care organizations, part of federal requirements to assess needs and develop community health improvement plans, Ely said. The different health organizations, which include Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health and Visiting Nurse and Hospice for Vermont and New Hampshire, use the same set of questions and survey methods, then parse out the data for their particular coverage areas. Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, for example, uses the same survey methods, but has results that are separate from DH-H. New London Hospital, Valley Regional Healthcare, Lake Sunapee Region VNA & Hospice and the New Hampshire Community Health Institute also took part.

“The data is helpful in figuring out if there are subtle differences, but for the most part it’s the same list of priorities,” Ely said.

People responded to the surveys between February and October 2021. At the start of the survey period, COVID-19 vaccines were still being rolled out and many restrictions still remained. Some had difficulty accessing mental health resources. Older adults became more isolated, while children (and their parents) struggled with remote learning and consistency.

“It is not surprising to me that mental well-being in the broadest sense is the No. 1 concern,” Ely said.

For Mt. Ascutney, it was the second time mental health ranked at the top of the list in the survey.

“It shows us that this is an ongoing chronic problem that has been probably accentuated by COVID-19 and the stress that ... social isolation has had on people’s lives” including children, parents and older adults, said Jill Lord, director of community health at Mt. Ascutney. “Anyone that works with the community can understand the stress that people are under, so it was no surprise to me at all.”

After the last survey, staff at Mt. Ascutney began looking at ways they could improve access to mental health care, particularly for youths. Waitlists can be long and people can struggle to find care.

“The amount of mental health vacancies that exist is crippling to moving forward,” Lord said.

As a result, Mt. Ascutney staff started a mental wellness clinic that is open to any patient who has been referred for mental health services. While people are waiting to see counselors they can attend the clinic, where providers can conduct an assessment of depression and anxiety and educate people about the disorders. Patients can also receive coaching about overall wellness, including exercise and mindfulness.

“It’s still a priority, so we have to build on what we’re doing,” Lord said.

Since the surveys were conducted, the mental health care landscape in the Upper Valley has changed. Telehealth has become more widely used and West Central Behavioral Health has launched its 24/7 Mobile Crisis Response where people can call or text for assistance.

“I do think that one bright spot for mental health services ... has been the discovery that for some patients — not all — telehealth has actually made it easier for people to access and engage in treatment,” Ely said. “But there are still a tremendous number of folks who need to have in-person care.”

Lord has hosted seven forums to discuss the data and get feedback from community members on what else can be done. DHMC, Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital, the VNH, and the Public Health Council of the Upper Valley will host two virtual forums to discuss the survey. The first is from 9 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 23, and the second is from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 2. Registration is required at https://forms.gle/9TeYfG3XDWiyMvny6.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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